Viacom’s Nickelodeon is imposing new limits on the licensing for children’s foods of its popular characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer, saying they will be used mostly for better foods.
The cable channel has been under pressure to act, threatened with a lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, demands from Congress and appeals from Federal Communications Commission officials.
The public officials suggest marketing of unhealthy foods to kids is part of the reason for rising childhood obesity, and they have been urging action by food, fast food and media companies.
Disney announced licensing limits last year, and Discovery Communications earlier this week announced its own limits on Discovery Kids characters.
Ten major marketers have unveiled plans to either abandon ads targeting kids or to limit their kid appeals to healthier foods; all have already pledged to use licensed characters only for better foods.
In a letter to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s telecom panel, Nickelodeon President Cyma Zarghami said the changes will take effect in new licensing agreements starting in January 2009.
“Nickelodeon will be adopting a policy in which the use of licensed characters on food packaging will be limited to products that meet ‘better for you’ criteria, as established by marketing partners in association with government dietary guidelines,” she said.
Nickelodeon licenses its characters to Kellogg and General Mills, among other companies.
Ms. Zarghami said the only exception is for special-occasion foods such as birthday cakes, which kids aren’t likely to eat all the time. Disney has a similar exception.
A Nickelodeon spokesman said the changes are the result of talks with health and government groups.
Nick earlier licensed SpongeBob and Dora to promote vegetables, but some critics, including Rep. Markey, have suggested media companies need to go farther and limit the food ads they air on kids programming to better products.
Rep. Markey commended Nickelodeon in a statement today, but said media companies need to do more.
“As childhood obesity is a serious public-health issue, it is vital that the media companies join food and beverage marketers in adopting socially responsible marketing strategies,” he said.
“In my view, limits on the amount of junk food advertising seen on children’s television, along with strong nutrition standards for food and beverage products advertised and utilized with licensed characters for such children’s TV shows, will help address childhood obesity in a positive way.”